Ah oui, the French are coming

Flight of fancy: Phia Ménard’s L’après-midi d’un Foehn. (Jean-Luc Beaujault)

Flight of fancy: Phia Ménard’s L’après-midi d’un Foehn. (Jean-Luc Beaujault)

More than any other colonial power France has been a big supporter of culture in Africa.

Now, for the first time, France will engage with a sub-Saharan country in a bilateral cultural season.

After signing an agreement with the French government “to improve mutual understanding and contribute to the diversification of France’s image”, South Africa follows in the footsteps of other key international partners such as China, Japan, India, Turkey, Russia and Brazil.

France will “emphasise the modernity and values that the two countries share”, states the press release.

Laurent Clavel, the French commissioner general for the bilateral seasons, said: “The French season will offer South Africans a glimpse of the ­cultural scene in modern-day France, which is contemporary and dynamic and embraces the diversity of our society.”
More than 70 different projects, performances and initiatives will feature. The array of events encompasses innovation, science and technology, higher education, business, tourism, sport and language.

In a reciprocal arrangement, South African work will travel to France.

Bongani Tembe, commissioner general for South Africa, said: “In many cases, French and South African artists will get together to write, compose or ­perform something completely new, born of their interaction.”

The French season kicks off in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival, with workshops and performances, including classical, jazz and brass performances, contemporary theatre and dance, street theatre and puppetry. The KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform a concert of “fantasy and favourites” with an all-French programme.

Voices from the past

French artist Jean-Paul Delore’s Carnets Sud/Nord is a travelling theatre laboratory that operates in Africa, Brazil and France.
When he first met South African actors Nick Welsh and Lindiwe Matshikiza in Johannesburg, it was a somewhat “surreal experience”.

The meeting at Ster City, an abandoned multiplex cinema and derelict remnant of 1970s apartheid, became the inspiration for their play Ster City. In it, two clowns, played by Welsh and Matshikiza, conjure up voices from Jozi’s past to create a compelling narrative from Homo sapiens to Nelson Mandela.

The Cien Non Nova Theatre ­Company will present Vortex and L’après-midi d’un Foehn (Afternoon of a Foehn). Foehn, a choreographed “dance” by a group of small inflated puppets to music by Claude Debussy, is designed for children by Phia Ménard; Vortex is an adult piece, a fight for life in which “the soloist explores the relationship between man and the unpredictable currents of change”.

Pudique Acide and Existases form a double bill of contemporary dance from French choreographers Mathilde Monnier and Jean-­François Duroure. Created in 1984, these duets were restaged at the Montpellier Dance Festival last year. This production features Sonia Darbois and ­Jonathan Pranlas. Set to music by Kurt Weill and Bernard ­Hermann, the pieces are described as “­combative and humorous”.

Not unknown in South Africa is the Théâtre Taliipot from Réunion. Its production !Aïa premiered at the Artscape last year.

The title is a San term referring to a special state of being — an awakening, a rebirth — and it is brought to life by dancers, actors and musicians from Réunion and South Africa.

A vital relationship

Researcher Philippe Pelen Baldini choreographed and scripted !Aïa following an extensive process involving artists, scientists and archaeologists whose research into the origins of the human species permeates the piece. The subject matter may be transcendental, ethereal and otherworldly, yet it is grounded, earthy, and based on solid human experience. Taliipot’s work strives to tell a universal story that reconnects humans to nature and celebrates that vital relationship.

Said Baldini: “Beauty becomes a reminder of the origins of beauty, not just those of our ancestors in any part of the world as it is, but of our own origin, which we set in motion today.”

The French Season in South Africa continues after the National Arts Festival until November 2012 in towns and cities across the country. The South African Season in France will take place from May to December 2013

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a political novelist (Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and (in his Friday column, Once Bitten) food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: www.meersman.co.za Read more from Brent Meersman